Seize the Franciscan moment, Rohr advises

by Dana Greene


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By Richard Rohr
Published by Franciscan Media, $21.99

The ideas of Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr are ubiquitous. Thousands find them in the morning on their computer screens, grist for meditation; thousands more find them in his more than 30 books; others are taught them at the Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1986.

In all, Rohr's intent is to deepen contemporary spirituality by linking it to Christian mysticism and the contemplative tradition. In Eager to Love, he reclaims the mysticism inherent in the Franciscan legacy and he offers it as an alternative to the hierarchical, patriarchal and authoritarian Christianity that he suggests has primary responsibility for so much of contemporary agnosticism in the West.

He claims to want to "reignite the Franciscan revolution," which is universally accessible and inclusive, offering healing and liberation. As such, he is building a bridge between the Christian mystical tradition and estranged seekers of every ilk.

Eager to Love is neither a biography of Francis nor a history of the Franciscan order, but Rohr's reflections on the best aspects of the Franciscan heritage as lived out by its founder and its early worthies -- Clare, Bonaventure and Dun Scotus. The book's publication is timely, not only because Franciscan spirituality is foundational to Rohr's entire understanding of spirituality, but because the elevation of a Jesuit pope has made it so by his selection of name and his claiming as his own the Franciscan charism of poverty.

The message of Francis, the saint, offers an alternative way of life, one anchored in a sacramental understanding of the world, an appreciation of contemplation as a different way of knowing, a wisdom that is nondualistic, and a pedagogy that teaches through living and being rather than through creedal affirmation.

According to Rohr, the starting point for Francis was not the reality of human sinfulness, but rather human suffering. He held up not the desire for self-perfection but rather the desire to enter into, to love, that which was other -- the poor, the outsider. As such, the Franciscan tradition is prophetic rather than priestly. It offers a third way of heterodoxy, one between traditional orthodoxy and heresy.

Although he includes many pages of endnotes as documentation, Rohr admits that he is not a scholar, but a popularizer who is laying out a different approach to the inherited Christian tradition. The strength of the book is his rendering of the many positive aspects of Francis' contribution and that of his early followers. Eager to Love is written to convince. Its language is exuberant, and while many ideas are provocative, Rohr's treatment -- and he acknowledges this -- is not systematic. He not only ranges widely over some eight centuries of church history with glances back to the life of Jesus and the early church, he also gives short shrift to many theological and philosophic issues.

Ever optimistic, Rohr sees the present moment as fecund, and his readers -- most of whom will be Catholics, disaffected or otherwise -- as pivotal in giving birth to a new understand of a very old mystical tradition.

Rohr both values the institutional church and suggests ways to survive within it. The autobiographical import of this statement is not lost on the reader. He admonishes Christians to give priority to Jesus and his message and to make use of both the inherited wisdom of the church and the protection it affords that message.

From the church, one inherits Scripture and the spiritual and theological tools by which to critique the church's own structures and practices. While maintaining that the most meaningful critique is from the inside of the institution, Rohr warns that in order to survive as an insider one must learn the nondualistic thinking that is embodied in the mystic way, the alternative way of Francis and his followers.

Francis was not a theologian, but a living illustration of one open to the love of God and eager to love God and all God's creation, especially the most lowly. This is, of course, the fundamental admonition to everyone who claims to be a Christian. One cannot but remember Karl Rahner's insistence that the Christian of the future will be a mystic or nothing at all. In Eager to Love, Rohr is attempting to drive that message home.

[Dana Greene is author of Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life and is on the board of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 18-31, 2014 print issue under the headline: Seize the Franciscan moment, Rohr advises.

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